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Music Boxes, Antique or Newer, Have Always Delighted Collectors

Photo Provided This unusual metal music box, made by Fred Zimbalist, dates to the mid-20th century.

Music boxes have always delighted me. The soft sound of the tinkling bells inside an interesting object d’art is impossible not to enjoy. Winding the box up only adds to the excitement.

I have a few. One or two are antiques, but most of my music boxes are newer models or gifts that I received. Several are holiday models that softly sing of Christmas.

Not long ago, I came across the one in today’s column which is very unusual and belongs to local photographer Gary Zearott. He brought it to an antiques meeting that I attended and I snapped a photo of the large and heavy treasure.

It is marked with the Thorens name, a well-known maker of Swiss musical movements. The song that it plays is “Bittersweet Blossom Time.”

This ornate hammered metal music box looks like India’s iconic Taj Mahal. Zearott purchased it from Wheeling Hall of Fame filmmaker Ellis Dungan (1909-2001) who is honored in India as a pioneer in their cinema history.

Dungan moved to Wheeling in 1958 and operated Ellis Dungan Productions, producing and directing industrial, business and public relations films.

Zearott knew Dungan from a chance elevator chat and the two became business acquaintances and friends.

From what I can determine, this particular music box was made by Russian-born Fred Zimbalist, a Cleveland manufacturer of note, who died in 2003.

He is known for highly prized and unique nickel silver-plated on brass pieces that were hand-tooled and engraved in India, according to musichouseshop.com.

There are many Zimbalist music boxes mentioned online if you are interested in learning more. All of them seem to have a similar look, although no two are the same, according to what I read. The Taj Mahal version seems to be rare.

Another big name in music boxes is Reuge. I have one with this type of Swiss movement, which is known for quality and craftsmanship. Founded by Charles Reuge in 1865 in Sainte-Croix, Switzerland, the Reuge family made watches with tiny musical box movements and music boxes.

Long ago, before electronic music, music boxes were prized for their entertainment value and portability, making music easier to share and enjoy. The decorative cases that hold the quality Swiss movements are often ornate and varied.

The key to the music box portability was a tuned steel comb, invented in 1796 by Antoine Favre in Switzerland’s clock-making region, La Vallee de Joux, according to Collector’s Weekly.

The first steel combs were made from varying lengths of metal arranged in a curving fan shape. As the pins on a rotating cylinder struck the teeth of the comb, notes were produced. Like musical clocks, these machines were spring-wound.

If you take care of a well-made music box, it will last for a long time without repair. Just don’t overwind the treasure.

Even an inexpensive music box offers a fun collectible that can be shaped to a person’s taste. Porcelain, carved wood, plastic and other materials mean that there is a price range for every pocketbook. Themes include everything from classic designs to cartoon characters.

But if you’re really fascinated by vintage and antique music boxes, you might explore the Music Box Society International, which has a website and annual convention.

For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at: zambitomaureen@hotmail.com or by writing in care of this newspaper.

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